President Donald Trump needs to call for a two-week shelter-in-place order, now, as part of a coherent national strategy for the coronavirus to protect Americans and their livelihoods.
Once he does, and governors follow his request, there will be time to debate how soon some controls might be lifted, or how soon certain people, like those under a particular age, might be free to resume something like normal life.
There will be more time then to develop palliative treatments, and more time for the federal government to order up the test kits and ventilators needed nationwide. There will be more time to gather data about which regions, and which people, are most at risk.
But the United States has passed the point where aggressive, targeted efforts at tracking and containment, like those pursued by South Korea, have a realistic chance of success. And calls for voluntary social distancing have had mixed results, as the photos of spring breakers crammed together on the Florida beaches last week made clear.
We are not suggesting that Trump has the authority to order a national lockdown, much less advocating that he attempt to enforce one. Instead, we are urging him to use the bully pulpit to put pressure on, and provide political cover for, governors to take the hard steps that are needed.
As the president’s own health advisers warn, the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to come. The nation’s slow and spotty response has allowed the virus to spread to every state. Modeling by researchers at the Imperial College London indicates that upward of 2 million lives could be lost to the pandemic unless America somehow manages to “flatten the curve.”
Some cities and states, and even entire nations, already have lockdowns in place. On Tuesday, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, ordered a “total ban” on leaving home for the population of 1.3 billion, for the next three weeks. He warned, “If you can’t handle these 21 days, this country will go back 21 years.”
Other countries have opted for narrower restrictions, and enforcement has varied. But patchwork approaches, like the one the United States defaulted to in the absence of a national plan, have proved inadequate.
The coronavirus can spread so quickly that to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, the restrictions need to be sweeping, they need to be uniform across jurisdictions and they need to be put in place now. It may already be too late for New York, despite the urgent efforts of state and local governments.
Everyone shares Trump’s concern for the economy. But this is not a moment for mere salesmanship, for conjuring a cheerful vision rather than facing reality. It’s a moment for providing a plan. On Tuesday, Trump said he’d “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” which falls this year on April 12. Who wouldn’t? But wishing will not make it so. This crisis has not turned a corner — it hasn’t even hit yet.
Rather than raising false expectations of a rapid and full return to business as usual, the president needs to be pursuing even more drastic measures. He should announce that, within 24 hours, all nonessential businesses should be shut and residents directed to remain in their homes except for vital trips out, such as to obtain food or medical care. Provisions can be made for people to walk in outdoor public spaces, so long as they maintain a distance of at least 6 feet.
Two weeks from now, with more testing, we will also have a far better sense of where infections are clustered if more people confine their movements to a limited number of places.
Trump has proclaimed himself a “war president.” Why, then, won’t he rally Americans around this cause? Winning this war will require shared sacrifice, and tremendous short-term hardship for Americans. But failure would mean devastating loss of life and prolonged, widespread economic pain.
Of course, even extreme social distancing and withdrawal is no panacea. The Trump administration will need to take other steps to stop the spread of this disease.
Lines of authority and policy aims need to be clarified within the White House. Vice President Mike Pence is the official crisis czar, but Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has his own response team working on, among other things, outreach to the private sector. Certain senior aides, with business leaders whispering in their ears, are at odds with some health advisers about what restrictions are needed and how heavy the government’s hand should be. There has been much grumbling among people both inside and outside the administration that it’s hard to tell who’s running the show. That is complicating decision-making at all levels.
Federalism is integral to American government, but the administration needs to get serious about running a coordinated national response. When Trump effectively told governors, You’re on your own. Go find your own supplies in the marketplace, he at least gave states greater purchasing flexibility. But he also set up a free-for-all in which states are now bidding against one another — as well as against municipalities, the federal government and other nations — for scarce resources such as protective equipment and ventilators. This causes not only price competition but also misallocation of resources, as each state scrambles to amass its own stockpile, regardless of relative need.
This editorial board is reluctant to grant any White House more executive power, much less this one, given its track record. But in this case, there is no one else to coordinate at the national level. It is the federal government’s job to look at the big picture, tracking where needed resources are available and deciding where they should go. Systems must be set up to provide for quickly shifting equipment and workers from areas with low levels of infection toward those in dire need.
There are encouraging signs that the White House is moving in this direction, albeit belatedly. On Tuesday, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Peter Gaynor, announced that his agency would make its first use of the Defense Production Act to speed procurement of test kits, protective masks and other equipment needed to fight the virus. Later in the day, Vice President Mike Pence said that 2,000 ventilators were en route to New York state from the national emergency stockpile, with another 2,000 being dispatched on Wednesday. The state estimates it will need 30,000 of the machines.
There remains a drastic shortage of not only protective gear and other equipment but also hospital capacity in hard-hit areas. The administration should use the Defense Production Act to ramp up assembly and distribution of much-needed medical supplies where it makes sense. The president also should fully mobilize the National Guard, with an assist from active-duty military and reserves, to tackle projects such as erecting field hospitals and setting up drive-through testing centers.
It’s time to put an end to the free-form daily task force briefings featuring the president, the vice president and a rotating cast of other officials. They are a poor use of time for most of the participants and, worse, have repeatedly served up confusing and even false information. The president should tap a respected figure, preferably someone apolitical and with experience in crisis management, to serve as the point person for these briefings. When developments merit, other officials can be brought in to address specific topics.
All this may seem like an overreaction to a health crisis that many Americans aren’t yet feeling. But though it has already wasted time and opportunities to contain the coronavirus, the United States still has a chance to apply hard lessons learned by China, Italy and other nations. A nationwide lockdown is the only tactic left to parry a viral adversary that is constantly on the move, and to buy the time for medical workers to prepare for what comes next.